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King, Edgar Samuel John (1900–1966)

by John V. Hurley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Edgar Samuel John King (1900-1966), surgeon and pathologist, was born on 10 June 1900 at Mosgiel, Otago, New Zealand, son of John King, an English-born bootmaker, and his New Zealand-born wife Beatrice Margaret, née Thomson. During Edgar's childhood the family emigrated to Victoria. He was educated at Melbourne High School and the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1923; M.D., 1926; M.S., 1931). Determined to become a surgeon, he spent two years as a resident medical officer at the Alfred Hospital, then went to England where he worked in the Middlesex and Guy's hospitals. He qualified as a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (1927) and, on his return to Melbourne, as a fellow of the (Royal) Australasian College of Surgeons (1930). At Scots Church, Collins Street, on 28 January 1930 he married with Presbyterian forms Leonora (Lorna) Jane Shaw, a nurse. That year he joined the surgical staff of the Alfred before transferring to the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital in 1931 as surgeon to out-patients.

King's ambition was to advance surgical knowledge and technique rather than to develop a large practice. In the absence of a department of surgery at the University of Melbourne, he combined surgery with research and teaching in the department of pathology. He was Stewart lecturer (1928-31 and 1933-34), senior lecturer (1932) and acting-professor (1934). By 1941 he had published two books and forty-nine papers on a wide range of pathological topics which earned him three Jacksonian essay prizes from the Royal College of Surgeons, England (1930, 1933 and 1938), the David Syme research prize (1931) and a D.Sc. (1933) from his university. King's chief surgical interest lay in fields then little developed—ischaemic heart disease and carcinoma of the oesophagus.

On 13 October 1939 King was appointed major, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. In April 1940 he sailed for the Middle East with the 2nd/2nd Australian General Hospital. Among several temporary attachments to other units, he served with the 2nd/1st Casualty Clearing Station in January 1941, heading a surgical team which treated soldiers wounded in the battles of Bardia and Tobruk, Libya. In August-October he had charge of a special thoracic unit at the 2nd/1st A.G.H. Back home from March 1942, he was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel in January 1944 and placed in command of the 2nd/2nd A.G.H.'s surgical division. From November 1945 to January 1946 he performed the same duties with the 2nd/7th A.G.H. at Lae, New Guinea. He was admitted to hospital in Australia in February 1946 and was transferred to the Retired List on 16 October.

Severe pulmonary tuberculosis forced King to abandon surgery and return to pathology. He was appointed pathologist to the R.M.H. in 1947 and succeeded (Sir) Peter MacCallum in the chair of pathology at the university in 1951. King inherited a department stretched by the postwar influx of students and depleted of equipment and experienced staff. Over the next ten years he created his ideal department, a place where teaching and research in morbid anatomy flourished side by side with experimental pathology. Young people came in increasing numbers for intellectual stimulus and to use facilities previously unavailable in Australia. King was elected a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1949) and of the Australian Academy of Science (1954); the latter honour gave him special pleasure as recognition of the scientific nature of modern pathology. He served on the National Health and Medical Research Council (1956-69), the board of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (1951-66), the National Radiation Advisory Committee (1959-66), the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories Commission (1961-66), and the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria whose executive committee he chaired (1963-66). In 1950-58 he was a councillor and chairman of the editorial board of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1965.

Throughout his career King's chief characteristics were infectious enthusiasm and an enormous capacity for hard work. His earlier studies had made him an outstanding morbid anatomist and histopathologist, but he was at heart a biologist with a wide range of interests and a well-developed scepticism of theories based on tradition rather than adequate evidence. He believed that disease provided opportunities for more subtle and complex experiments than any devised in a laboratory; his instinctive reaction to any new finding was to ponder its wider biological significance. A logical and lucid lecturer, his real strength as a teacher was revealed in small groups where his Socratic and iconoclastic approach was both intimidating and stimulating. He was at his best in leading an informal discussion, often over lunch, about medical or general topics. While invariably friendly and polite, he rarely failed to identify and correct errors of fact or reasoning.

With Lorna and their four daughters, King shared a happy home life. For years after he was struck by illness, his wife helped him to conserve his energy for work by serving him dinner in bed. He was never interested in sport and, apart from reading, had only one absorbing hobby: his stamp collection was among the finest in Australia.

By the end of his life King had published three monographs and more than one hundred papers. In his later years he had little time for original work, but he provided informed criticism even in fields in which he had no personal expertise. Colleagues remembered him as a sage adviser, a confidant of unselfish integrity and a charming companion who showed concern for every member of his department. Despite an incurable illness, he worked on plans for the new department of pathology until a few days before his death. Survived by his wife and daughters, he died of chronic lymphatic leukaemia on 31 January 1966 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His portrait by (Sir) William Dargie is held by the department of pathology, University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Department of Pathology, University of Melbourne, The Melbourne School of Pathology (Melb, 1962)
  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (Syd, 1988)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 9 July 1966, 20 Aug 1966
  • Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, Aug 1966
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 6, no 2, Dec 1967
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Feb 1966
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John V. Hurley, 'King, Edgar Samuel John (1900–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/king-edgar-samuel-john-10740/text19035, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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